Riverhead Town Weighs In on Southampton Town Housing Proposal

The Riverside traffic circle is closest to Riverhead’s downtown, but Riverside is part of Southampton Town.
Taylor K. Vecsey

Can one East End town tell another what to do when it comes to a major development project?  No, but it can ask. Politely.

That is what Riverhead Town has done when it comes to a proposal by Southampton Town to build as many as 2,300 units of high-density affordable housing in the largely Hispanic and blighted hamlet of Riverside.

While Riverside is actually in the Town of Southampton, Riverhead officials believe they should have a say in development there since Riverhead provides a variety of services to Riverside, including schools and a library. Plus, Riverside borders Riverhead with most thinking it is actually part of that town.

Riverhead Town officials do not oppose development in Riverside, said Dawn Thomas, Riverhead’s administrator of economic development, planning and building. They are asking Southampton to re-think the idea of affordable housing and consider, in addition, housing for seniors and “ownership” housing as well.

“The Town of Riverhead is deeply interested in development in Riverside because of all of the community services we provide there,” Thomas told Behind The Hedges. Simply to build affordable housing, Thomas said, would promote a kind of “economic segregation” in Riverside. The Hispanic population in Riverside, she said, has soared, about 60%, in the last 10 years. Riverside is also one of the poorest sections of Suffolk County, with a poverty rate of nearly 20%, according to demographic figures.

Instead, Thomas said, Riverhead wants to see a mixture of senior and “ownership” housing.

In addition, Riverhead school district officials have said that the district would not be able to absorb what it believes would be “several hundred” children that would be a part of what might be as many as 4,000 new Riverside residents who would live in an affordable housing complex.

Southampton’s so-called Riverside Revitalization Action Plan would “keep the poorest people in the same area,” Thomas said.

Housing, she said, should be more spread out throughout Southampton town.

The Southampton Town plan also calls for a new sewage treatment plant on Flanders Road near the Riverside traffic circle. That, Southampton Town officials said, would allow for up to 3.2 million square feet of development, including the 2,300 affordable housing units. A sewage treatment plan is key since it would be needed to serve a housing development.

The Southampton plan was first envisioned 10 years ago. Thomas and other Riverhead officials said much has changed in the last decade, and revisions to that plan are necessary.

But late last year, then Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said he did not agree that so much has changed to justify revising the plan.

At a recent Southampton Town public hearing, Thomas said in the decade since the Southampton plan was devised, “many of the underlying assumptions and data have changed dramatically.” She pointed to a “marked reduction in opportunities for home ownership,” an increase in population due to the COVID-19 pandemic and “migration and the increased need for workforce.”

If the plan goes forward unchanged, she testified, it could result in “the inadvertent exacerbation of the already extremely high segregation that exists in the area.”

Thomas noted that Gov. Kathy Hochul is a strong proponent of affordable housing and that there are sufficient state funds available for such housing.

“I think there are predatory investors, and there’s lots of funding available for affordable housing, which is wonderful, but concentrating affordable housing in one area is something that is not wonderful,” Thomas said at the public hearing.

A new administration has taken over in Southampton, and a meeting of minds, at this point, sounds possible.

Janice Scherer, Southampton Town’s planning and development administrator, said in an email to Hedges that, “We have always been willing to work with our neighboring municipality of Riverhead. The Town Board is helping Riverside become a safe, vibrant and thriving community without overwhelming any of the service districts or school district, and we will look into how to accomplish that together with Riverhead so that we are all collaborating together to make it a real success.”

Thomas said a meeting between the two towns is in the planning stage.

Email tvecsey@danspapers.com with further comments, questions or tips. Follow Behind The Hedges on TwitterInstagram and Facebook.